Not sure what the difference is between an electrolyte drink and a carbohydrate drink? We take you through the options

Cyclists really are spoilt for choice when it comes to sports drinks products. However, this huge choice can lead to confusion.

The lines have been blurred regarding what we really need and why, with many manufacturers – in an attempt to be the preferred choice among the cycling community – making grand claims that their product is what you need in order to achieve your sporting goals.

These claims have led to an obsession with sport drinks in recent years, with many cyclists over-relying on products and giving too little thought to real food.

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In addition, many riders are using them inappropriately – or at least aren’t using them effectively, wasting money.

That’s why we’ve put together this complete guide to sports drinks to answer all of these questions. To clear up confusion, to highlight performance benefits, and importantly, to compare sports products to real foods.

Energy drinks explained

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There are many different types of sports drinks – and they serve different purposes.

Here’s a look at the key types on offer and when, and how, they should be used:

Carbohydrate drinks

What are they?

A blend of carbohydrate, water and electrolytes. Most commercially available sports drinks contain a mix of carbohydrates from different sources (eg sucrose, glucose, fructose) at a concentration of around six to eight per cent.

Why use them? 

As the body’s primary source of fuel during prolonged and high intensity exercise, depletion of muscle carbohydrate is one of the primary causes of fatigue, and can severely limit your ability to perform on longer rides.

Studies show that consumption of a carbohydrate drink during rides lasting over 60 minutes is an effective way to boost endurance. By providing the working muscles with additional fuel you can delay fatigue, with some research suggesting up to a 20 per cent improvement in performance during exercise lasting 90 minutes or more.

Ingesting carbohydrate during exercise also has positive effects on the central nervous system, which can provide an additional mental ‘boost’.

How do I use them effectively?

During rides lasting over 60 minutes, consuming 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour will delay fatigue and help you sustain an optimum pace. One litre of an isotonic carbohydrate drink will provide around 60g of carbohydrate – so aim for around 250ml every 15-20 minutes.

Drinks containing a blend of carbohydrates have been shown to boost absorption and increase the amount of carbohydrate that gets to the working muscles (see 2:1 glucose fructose).

Avoid concentrated drinks containing more than six-eight per cent carbohydrate (hypertonic), as these slow the rate at which fluid is absorbed, and can also cause gastrointestinal discomfort.

Are they better than real foods?

Carbohydrate drinks are a convenient option, which have the added bonus of facilitating the replacement of fluid and electrolytes.

However, this isn’t to say it’s not possible to fuel your rides with real food – in a 2012 study from Appalachian State University, bananas were shown to be as effective as a six per cent carbohydrate drink in sustaining power output and performance in a group of male cyclists completing a 75km time trial.

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Reliance on carb drinks can be an expensive habit. To get around this consider making a DIY isotonic drink by mixing 200ml ordinary squash with 800ml cold water and a pinch of salt.

Whether you use a carb drink is up to you – the key is to develop a plan which allows you to consume the recommended 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour.

Isotonic drinks

Electrolyte drinks containing six-eight per cent carbohydrate are known as isotonic – they contain the same concentration of dissolved particles (salts and sugars) as body fluids, which promotes hydration.

2:1 Fructose drinks

carbohydrate sports drink

What are they?

An advanced range of sports drinks, powders, bars and gels containing a blend of carbohydrate in a 2:1 ratio of glucose to fructose with added electrolytes.

Why use them?

Consuming carbohydrate during endurance exercise delays fatigue and boosts performance, but the amount that can actually be delivered to the working muscles is limited by the rate at which it can be absorbed from your digestive tract.

Current recommendations to consume 30-60g of carbohydrate an hour during prolonged exercise are based on research showing that glucose absorption is capped at around one gram per minute (or 60g per hour), with studies showing that higher concentrations are simply not absorbed, and can result in stomach upset.

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However, more recent research focusing on the impact of combining different types of carbohydrate has shown that when glucose is consumed with fructose, carbohydrate absorption can exceed 1.5g per minute, increasing the rate of delivery to the muscles to up to 90g per hour. This is thanks to the fact that fructose is transported and absorbed via a different mechanism to glucose.

Put simply, by combining carbohydrates, you can overcome the 60g per hour saturation rule, which increases fuel availability. But does this translate to better performance? Research suggests yes – in a 2004 trial comparing glucose, glucose/fructose or control (water) beverages in trained cyclists; rates of carbohydrate oxidation were 36 per cent higher with the glucose/fructose beverage versus the pure glucose drink.

In addition researchers found that the glucose/fructose drink spared the body’s stored carbohydrate, improved water uptake from the gut and reduced the rate of perceived exertion. More recently, researchers at Birmingham University simulating a one-hour time trial after two hours of riding found an eight per cent improvement in performance when using glucose/fructose beverage, compared to a glucose-only drink.

How do I use them effectively?

For rides lasting over an hour, try swapping your usual sports drink or gel for a 2:1 product to increase carbohydrate delivery from 60g to 90g per hour – this equates to 1,500ml of a drink, three gels or three bars.

Remember, any change in your fuelling strategy should be tried and tested, so don’t make the switch on the day of a competition – work towards titrating your usage upwards from the standard 60g per hour.

It’s worth noting that although absorption is reported to be up to 90g per hour, recent evidence presented by experts from Gatorade suggests that 78g per hour may be the optimum dose for performance benefit.

Are they better than real foods?

Although a relatively new area of sports nutrition, multiple transportable carbohydrates have definite benefits which could translate into that all-important performance edge during an event. The advantage of 2:1 products is convenience and the precise ratio of glucose to fructose for maximise absorption.

Carbohydrate foods do contain a mix of sugars (bananas provide glucose and fructose in a 1:1 ratio), so you could experiment with different sources, although getting 90g of carb in the all-important 2:1 ratio will require some maths. Alternatively try experimenting with a homemade drink using a mix of maltodextrin or glucose and fructose.

Electrolyte/hydration drinks

What are they?

Hydration drinks are a mix of water and electrolytes (such as sodium and potassium) with little or no added carbohydrate, designed to replace the fluid and salts lost during exercise.

Why use them?

As core temperature rises during exercise the body compensates by sweating, creating a loss of water and electrolytes, with additional water lost via respiration. Although the body can cope with small changes in fluid volume, large sweat losses can lead to dehydration, which results in impaired performance, increased heart rate, reduced heat tolerance and lower reaction times.

The loss of electrolytes in sweat (primarily sodium) is also exacerbated during prolonged exercise or in hot weather. Failure to replace electrolytes, or dilution through excessive intake of plain water can result in hyponatremia (low levels of sodium) leading to muscle cramps, lethargy, nausea, headaches and in severe cases, death.

Hydration drinks prevent dehydration by replacing fluids and electrolytes. The addition of sodium also facilitates hydration as it stimulates thirst and also water absorption from the intestine, promoting fluid retention. Due to dilution of electrolytes, plain water may also suppress thirst, while hydration drinks maintain desire to drink.

How do I use them effectively?

Generally speaking, a specific hydration product isn’t necessary if you’re riding for under an hour, but they can be useful in maintaining hydration in hot conditions, or if sweat loss is high.

If you do choose one, the rule of thumb is to start your ride well hydrated, and to adopt a regular pattern of drink intake, aiming for 125ml every 15 minutes. This will help to maintain fluid balance.

Remember that if you’re riding for over an hour, you’ll also need to take carbohydrate on board, as hydration drinks don’t contain enough carbohydrate to boost endurance.

Are they better than real foods?

Flavoured beverages increase your desire to drink, and fluid consumption is more closely matched to sweat loss when athletes are offered a flavoured drink over plain water during exercise. In hot and humid conditions they’re an effective way to maintain adequate hydration, although during longer rides you’ll need to consider a carbohydrate source.

On the downside, these drinks can be expensive, and in rides lasting under an hour in relatively cool conditions, good old water will do the job nicely. If you’re not a fan of plain water, you can add a bit of squash and a pinch of salt to your water bottle to increase motivation to drink.

What are they?

Recovery powders, bars and products containing either a single source or a blend of proteins (whey, casein, soy) with or without added carbohydrate.

Why use them?

The immediate post-exercise period presents a unique opportunity for maximising muscle recovery and replenishing carbohydrate stores. Consuming a protein supplement alongside carbohydrate can stimulate muscle synthesis, repair muscle damage and enhance glycogen storage, all of which improve recovery.

Specific recovery products contain either a single source of a blend of different proteins – namely casein, soy and whey. Although these proteins are all nutritionally ‘complete’ (they contain all of the essential amino acids needed by the body) they are digested at different rates.

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A by-product of cheese production, whey is a ‘fast-acting’ protein which is rapidly digested. It also has the added benefit of high levels of branched chain amino acids, which have been shown to stimulate muscle synthesis. Thanks to its rapid absorption, studies show that whey is superior to casein or soy in stimulating muscle repair following resistance exercise.

In contrast, casein (also from cow’s milk) is a slow-acting protein, which takes up to seven hours to digest, as it forms a ‘gel’ in the stomach providing a slower release of amino acids. Soy is somewhere in the middle, being an ‘intermediate’ acting protein, with different levels of amino acids which have been linked to improved immunity.

Although whey is usually the favoured protein in recovery products, research shows that a blend of proteins may be better, as this provides a timed release of amino acids to the muscle – the whey delivers quickly, while the soy and casein provide a more sustained rise, extending the window for muscle building.

How do I use them effectively?

Combining protein with carbohydrate at a ratio of 3:1 (carb:protein) offers maximum benefit in the recovery period. For the majority, this will equate to around 20-30g of protein – a scoop of whey powder typically contains around 20g.

Most protein supplements are designed to be added to water or milk to make a recovery drink. If you choose one without carbohydrate, you’ll need to think about this too – aim for around 1-1.2g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight eg 70-84g for a 70kg adult.

Research shows that higher levels of protein aren’t necessarily better. Instead, several protein doses of 20-30g are thought to be the most effective. To achieve this, try having a shake directly after your ride, and then follow up with a protein-containing meal in the next two-three hours.

Are they better than real foods?

Although recovery products are convenient, you can achieve a similar blend of proteins by eating a mixture of whole foods after a session on the bike (see ‘protein power’). A smoothie containing one pint milk, one large banana, one tbsp honey and 100g Greek yoghurt will provide 30g of protein and 70g of carbohydrate for the ideal 3:1 ratio.

Chocolate milk has also shown to be as effective as other supplements in restoring carbohydrate and stimulating muscle protein synthesis – milk itself is 20 per cent whey to 80 per cent casein, which goes some way to explaining its benefit.

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For reference, 10g of protein is the same as two small eggs, or 300ml milk, or 30g cheese, or 100g Total yoghurt, or 50g meat/chicken, or 400ml soy milk, or 200g baked beans.